A cancer diagnosis can be devastating.

Now, new research shows that patients diagnosed with cancer have a risk of suicide 26% higher than the general population.

A variety of factors contribute to the elevated risk, including geography, race and ethnicity, economic status and clinical characteristics, American Cancer Society (ACS) researchers found.

The study also showed a decline in elevated risk for cancer patients compared with the general population from 67% in 2000 to 16% in 2016.

“Our findings highlight the importance of timely symptom management and targeted interventions for suicide prevention in individuals with cancer,” said senior author Xuesong Han, scientific director of health services research at ACS.

“These require joint efforts by federal and state governments, as well as health care providers, to ensure comprehensive health insurance coverage for psycho-oncological, psychosocial and palliative care, development of appropriate clinical guidelines for suicide risk screening, and inclusion of suicide prevention in survivorship care plans,” Han said in a society news release.

Her team analyzed data from 16.8 million individuals diagnosed with cancer in 43 states between 2000 and 2016.

During that time, nearly 20,800 people with cancer died by suicide.

This elevated suicide risk was seen across all demographic groups, with particularly higher risks among folks who were Hispanic, uninsured, covered by Medicaid, or under 64 years of age and on Medicare.

The suicide risk was highest in the six months after a cancer diagnosis. That rate was more than seven times higher than the general population.

Relatively higher suicide risks were seen in folks with a poor cancer prognosis and high symptom burdens in the first two years after diagnosis. These included cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, stomach, brain, pancreas and lung.

After two years, those with cancers that could cause long-term quality-of-life impairments, such as oral cavity and pharynx, female breast, uterine, bladder and leukemia, had higher suicide risks.

“The overall decreasing trend in suicide risk suggests a positive role of the coinciding promotion of psychosocial and palliative care and advances in symptom control and pain management,” said lead author Xin Hu, a doctoral candidate and researcher at Emory University in Atlanta.

“But more needs to be done. Examining the associations of clinical factors such as cancer treatments as well as policy factors with suicide risk and evaluating psychosocial interventions are important areas for future research,” Hu said in the release.

The findings were published Jan. 20 in JAMA Network Open.

More information

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has more on signs of depression in cancer patients.

SOURCE: American Cancer Society, news release, Jan. 20, 2023